Archive for May, 2022


Are exclusion rates for black Caribbean students up to six times higher?

May 31, 2022

The Guardian recently chose to print an utterly uncritical piece on No More Exclusions, the campaigning group that wants even the most dangerous young criminals to stay in school with their victims. More accurate information about that group and their appalling views can be found here (from me) or here (from the TES). While I’m very disappointed at the Guardian for this, in this post I wish only to address one point made in that article:

The racial disparities are stark, with exclusion rates for black Caribbean students up to six times higher than those of their white peers in some local authorities, according to a recent Guardian analysis.

I wrote about that “analysis” when it was published, in this post: How misleading was today’s Guardian article on exclusions?  

The entire article was cherrypicked data, almost certainly intended to mislead. In particular:

  • Ethnic minority groups were broken down into the smallest possible categories and those ethnic groups that had lower exclusion rates than white British pupils were ignored (despite being the overwhelming majority of ethnic minority pupils);
  • Fixed term exclusion rates were used instead of permanent exclusion rates;
  • England was broken down into 150 LAs, and figures were given for the LAs with the most extreme discrepancies.

The article then repeated claims about how this was an incredible injustice for pupils from an ethnic minority background, and calls for changes in national policy, as if the statistics applied to all ethnic minorities in the whole of England. Later Guardian stories (like this one and, before it was corrected two weeks later, this one) referred back to the article as if it was about black pupils in general rather than black Caribbean pupils in a handful of LAs.

However, even if the article had been honest in the first place, there are several reasons why the specific statistic about black Caribbean pupils being up to six times as likely to be excluded should not still be being repeated.

Firstly, it is not, as described, “a recent Guardian analysis”. It was published over a year ago. When I wrote about that in my previous blogpost, I assumed it was based on data that had been released in February 2021 and it had taken the Guardian a month to subdivide the data in ways that supported a narrative of discrimination. Looking back now, I can’t actually see any reason to think it wasn’t based on data that was first published in July 2020. Regardless, it was data about the 2018-19 school year, and data on the 2019-20 school year was published in July 2021 and so, far from being “recent”, that analysis has been out of date for 10 months.

Secondly, in the more recent statistics, the term “suspensions” has replaced “Fixed Term Exclusions”. Suspensions are when a student is temporarily removed from school, usually for a day or two and rarely for more than a week. When a child is expelled it is called a “permanent exclusion”. Referring to suspensions as exclusions has allowed anti-exclusion campaigners to misrepresent the data for many years by confusing expulsion and suspension. As mentioned earlier, the original Guardian “analysis” used the figures for Fixed Term Exclusions. While it is in a paragraph that mentions suspensions, to continue to quote it in an article about exclusions, where many of the claims are clearly about permanent exclusions, is misleading.

Thirdly, although the “up to six times higher” statistic was apparently the headline when that article was the cover story of the print edition of the Guardian, the online version had a different headline. In the text it was admitted that the six times figure came from Cambridgeshire, and that  “Cambridgeshire has a relatively small number of Caribbean students, which partially explains the disparity”. The new headline was “Exclusion rates five times higher for black Caribbean pupils in parts of England”. So in it’s article about No More Exclusions, The Guardian is quoting something that is not just out of date, but that they have previously corrected.

That last point might seem relatively minor, after all, does the difference between six times and five times matter? In fact, the Guardian reported that Brent was excluding black Caribbean pupils at 5.9 times the exclusion rate for white pupils. So what difference does it make that the six times figure is marginally higher? I think what’s most misleading about including it is that in mentioning Cambridgeshire, it suggests the disparities being described are a national issue. Without the Cambridgeshire figure, every single LA featured in the Guardian’s graphic (below) is in London.

London does contain the majority of England’s black Caribbean pupils, so it is perhaps unsurprising that many would be from London. However, if you look at the racial disparities in exclusions between black Caribbean and white British pupils, while racial disparities exist outside of London, they seem to be less common and on a smaller scale. I have looked at LAs with more that 750 black Caribbean pupils, a somewhat higher threshold than the Guardian’s. This is what the disparities look like (London LAs are in blue, non-London LAs are in orange).


I don’t mean to suggest that disproportionate suspension of black Caribbean pupils is not an issue. or even that it is never an issue outside of London. But, it is a far more pressing issue in London, where most of England’s black Caribbean pupils go to school and where many LAs have very high exclusion rates for black Caribbean pupils. At some point I hope to blog in detail about how London’s exclusion data is very different to the rest of England’s, but here I hope it is obvious how the Guardian’s methodology distorts the exclusions debate to make one of London’s issue seem like a more general issue for England.

If we accept that it is mainly London that has a problem with disproportionate suspension of black Caribbean pupils, then we might end up looking at what else is exceptional about suspensions in London. We would then, perhaps be interested in whether suspension rates varied between regions.

From the above graph, the most noticeable thing about suspensions in London is how rarely they are used. Correlation is not causation, so I’m not going to claim that having a low use of suspensions widens racial disparities. But this should be reason to stop assuming that racial disparities are a reason to use suspensions less. The lesson from London could well be that where people let kids off of suspensions that are deserved, it is white British kids who are most likely to be let off. At the very least, we should consider the possibility that it is not just sanctions that might have a disproportionate impact on some ethnic groups. It might be that reluctance to use a sanction, or political pressure not to use it, has a disproportionate impact on different ethnic groups. The Guardian was so busy looking for reasons to argue against exclusions, that it missed the real story of the suspension data. The story that London has a unique problem with racial disparities in suspensions, and that this has happened in a city that stands out for having kept suspensions low.


“Just Give Them A Pen”

May 21, 2022

There are people on Twitter, like this educationalist, who seem to hate the fact that schools have rules.

Ignoring the question of why the taxpayer is funding people with such low expectations of children to train teachers, I wanted to single out the daftest of the complaints here: the objection to enforcing the rule that pupils in school should have something to write with.

This has been immortalised in… I think it’s a poem… in which child neglect is used as a reason not to enforce rules.

This is performative compassion. It’s all about how the adult feels, rather than what’s best for the child. It’s not actual compassion, because reporting child neglect is the compassionate thing to do. Lowering expectations in order to normalise, or even conceal, neglect is not compassionate. Any school that just assumes its pupils are suffering neglect is a safeguarding risk. Children’s suffering is something to be reported, not something you build into your expectations. That’s not to say that while neglect was being dealt with a school wouldn’t help a child, including help ensuring they are equipped for the day, but there is no obvious benefit to changing what’s expected in lessons.

Assuming we are designing rules for the best interests of the students, not to display our own virtue, the case for rules about equipment is pretty straightforward, if you are familiar with even half-way challenging secondary schools. In fact, one has to assume that people who oppose such rules are imagining a completely unrealistic scenario for challenging schools. They are assuming that occasionally one child forgets a pen, entirely by accident, and politely asks for one at the first opportunity. The teacher immediately lends it. At the end of the lesson they return it without being asked. This might well happen in the most privileged schools.

What actually happens in challenging schools where rules about equipment are not enforced is quite different. Every lesson, several children (usually the ones who are slow to engage at the best of times) will sit doing no work. When confronted individually they say they don’t have a pen. When told they should have one they argue. The teacher lends out pens, which will amount to dozens in a day. It will add minutes to the time it takes to start the lesson. This extra wasted time will take place when the teacher is already very busy, either supervising children getting into the classroom, settling them or setting up the lesson. Few pens are subsequently returned. Several are destroyed. The same routine is then repeated if work requires a pencil, a ruler or a calculator. The teacher ends up buying pens from their own money. The school may well become littered with broken pens.

Of course, if required, teachers can come up with routines to stop this waste of time and resources. Although usually the methods of saving time, waste more resources and the methods of saving resources, waste more time. Regardless, you end up with all sorts of pen lending routines. Requiring pupils to identify their need for a pen immediately. Making a pot of pens available for pupils to collect. Counting pens in and out. Making them swap something they can’t afford to lose (a phone or a shoe, maybe) for the pen. Writing names on the board for students who have borrowed a pen. Even if these routines are effective, they are often more effort for all concerned than simply requiring everyone to bring in a pen.

Often the routines are not effective. After all, what you are doing is lowering expectations. Children should be able to bring a pen to lesson. They often have a pen, they are just wasting time for the sake of it. By lowering expectations you are doing them no favours. You are making them into worse people. In the worst school I worked in for low expectations regarding equipment, it became so normal for pupils to just help themselves to pens, that if you didn’t put a freshly stocked pot of pens out for them, they would rifle through your cupboards and desk looking for pens. Because replacing pens was expensive, and the departmental stocks would run out early in the year, some of us would stock up our pens by just picking them up off of the floor in corridors and on break duty. Kids would discard them all over the place, because they were being taught pens were worthless, and that the only person who should care whether they were ready to learn in lessons was their teacher. Nobody was benefitting from these low expectations.

Other experiences showed me the benefits of having a sanction for not bringing in a pen. Something I have experienced many times, as have many other teachers, is the pupil who turns up without a pen until they are reminded there is a sanction for this. Suddenly, they find a pen that they had all along. When I’ve asked some of these pupils why they asked for a pen, many have said “I just couldn’t be bothered to get it out”. What you permit is what you promote so by treating having a pen as optional, you promote this.

The experience that most informs my thinking on this was a school I worked in that changed its expectations. A policy was introduced of giving 45 minute detentions to anyone who turns up to lessons without equipment. Even I think this is too harsh: I’m sure a lighter sanction would have worked. Nevertheless, what I saw was a transformation in expectations. Suddenly, every child had a pen, pencil and ruler. In particular, I remember a pupil who was dyslexic, dyspraxic and deaf who had never brought in a pen to any of my lessons. It would have been easy to just assume “a child like that” couldn’t be expected to manage to bring in a pen. When the detention policy was introduced, he transformed overnight. He brought a pen to every single lesson without fail. As did almost everyone else. I left the school and returned a few years later. The policy had been abandoned, and once again there were kids in the lower years who had never had a pen, but those who had been at the school during the time when the detention policy was in place, remained good at bringing in pens. There are those who believe that you can never get good behaviour through punishment alone. On this issue, I have seen that you can, and you can help form good habits that way too.

There are those who just don’t like rules. There are those who think you can have meaningful rules that you don’t actually enforce. There are those who think kids are basically helpless and hopeless. There are those who think any SEN means a child should be written off as incapable. There are those who cannot imagine that a child would choose to do wrong. There are those who think that enforcing rules is done only due to sadism and that children live in fear of their teachers. However, in the real world, everyone is better off if children bring their own pens in, and if that will only happen through enforcing a rule that says “bring in a pen”, then there’s no good reason not to.


Do permanent exclusions cost £370k per excluded pupil?

May 13, 2022

Of course not. But this kind of nonsense is recycled endlessly by the anti-exclusion lobby. 

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking into the campaigning work of those groups trying to take away schools’ power to exclude. With very little challenge, the same bogus claims are made again and again by campaigners, academics and journalists. Recent posts dealt with a video by the Economist and a report by The Commission On Young Lives. These both included bizarre claims about the cost of exclusions from the same source.

The Commission On Young Lives:

Meanwhile, all of this is extremely expensive. An exclusion has been estimated to cost £370,000 per young person across their lifetime in education, benefits, healthcare, and criminal justice costs. Just think how some of this money could be so much better spent on introducing better systems, starting in the early years, that do much more to support children to learn, keep children in school and provide them with more specialist help and learning if they need it.

The Economist’s video:

Reducing exclusions can help tackle structural racism within education systems and it can save governments and taxpayers lots of money. In England, each cohort of permanently excluded pupils costs an extra £2.1bn over their lifetime in education, health, welfare and criminal justice costs.

Both of these give this 2017 report from the think tank IPPR as a source for this claim. This report includes the following:

Page 7 (page 9 in the pdf)

This report reveals the cost to the state of failing our most vulnerable children at school.

Every cohort of permanently excluded pupils will go on to cost the state an extra £2.1 billion in education, health, benefits and criminal justice costs.

Page 22-23 (page 24-25 in the pdf)

… there is also a strong economic imperative to address this sharp end of the social mobility challenge. IPPR research estimates that the cost of exclusion is around £370,000 per young person in lifetime education, benefits, healthcare and criminal justice costs.

This calculation reflects the costs of: education in the alternative provision sector; lost taxation from lower future earnings; associated benefits payments (excluding housing); higher likelihood of entry into the criminal justice system; higher likelihood of social security involvement; and increased average healthcare costs. Using the official figure of 6,685 children permanently excluded from school last year, this amounts to £2.1 billion for the cohort….


  • Excluded pupils are likely to suffer long-term mental health problems, fail to achieve basic levels of literacy and numeracy, struggle to gain qualifications needed to access work, to be long-term unemployed, and to be repeatedly involved in crime.
  • As well as an incalculable personal cost, this has a huge societal cost. The cost to the state of failing each pupil is an estimated £370,000 in additional education, benefits, healthcare and criminal justice costs across a lifetime.
  • We calculate on official estimations of numbers of exclusion, that this is a £2.1 billion cost for every year’s cohort of permanently excluded young people. Yet, given that the full extent of exclusion greatly exceeds official figures, the true cost of exclusion is likely to be many multiples of this estimate.

And that’s it. No details of how the calculation was made. No accompanying technical report. They simply assumed that exclusions cause bad outcomes for excluded pupils, and made estimates for the extent and costs of those outcomes, which (apart from the total) they did not share. This should not be a surprise. The same report claimed that it is likely close to 100% of excluded children have mental health problems, a claim I discussed in detail in this post. That statistic included working out, and as I discussed in that post, it was pretty much all wrong. The statistics for the cost of exclusion have no working out (other than multiplying £370,000 by the number of excluded pupils to get £2.1 billion) but is based on an unproven assumption that not excluding will somehow magically cure the criminality, poor health and expected low incomes of the excluded. This has no credibility at all.

And, of course, the additional assumption has been made that not permanently excluding has no costs. This seems unreasonable when you look at stories, like this and this, where teachers who faced horrific ordeals, due to their schools failing to keep them safe from dangerous pupils, have been paid hundreds of thousands pounds in compensation. And that’s not considering the direct costs – in terms of learning, human suffering and staff retention – of not keeping kids safe and their lessons undisrupted.

A quick Google search reveals the £2.1 billion statistic has been used again and again without any suggestion it might not be reliable. The discourse about exclusions remains utterly blighted by misinformation that, almost always, goes unchallenged.


The Commission on Young Lives report and young people in custody

May 8, 2022

A few days ago I shared this post about the Commission on Young Lives report on exclusions.

I observed that:

Much of the report seems to have been cut and pasted from other reports from charities and think tanks without any attempt to check the reliability of the information. It is then padded out with anecdotes the Commission has collected directly or found in newspapers. Because of the cutting and pasting it is confusing and incoherent. Suspensions are referred to as “suspensions” for much of the report, which is the current terminology. But at other times they are referred to as “fixed term exclusions” or “temporary exclusions” which is what they used to be called. Worst of all, there are a number of occasions where claims are made about “exclusions” that either common sense, or a little research, tells us must actually be about suspensions.

A further issue with the cutting and pasting is that many of the statistics used are contradictory and repetitive, because they come from different sources and apparently no fact checking was ever done.

I gave some examples of how some of the statistics seemed to contradict each other, and how some claims were repeated again and again. I left one of the biggest examples for this post: the statistics about those in custody (or who have been in custody) and their exclusion history. Before I examine those claims, I will address the question of whether there are any reliable figures available that they could have used.

I would suggest that it is unlikely that there are any reliable figures relating to adult prisoners. Firstly, because records of permanent exclusions and suspensions haven’t always been kept at a national level. As I understand it this began in the 90s and even after then there were some anomalies that ensured some institutions weren’t covered. The main set of exclusion data on the DfE website goes back to 2006. Secondly, even if records were better going back decades, it is not going to be easy to match up prisoners to their school records although this apparently can be done quite well with young offenders (see below). Thirdly, surveying prisoners is difficult. Doing so in a way that clearly explains the difference between a formal permanent exclusion, a suspension (unhelpfully, this was also called a “fixed term exclusion” or sometimes a “temporary exclusion” until recently) and being removed from school because you are in custody, might be close to impossible.

As I mentioned above, with young offenders there is some very good data, recently made available. As I reported in a recent blogpost:

….there has been very recent research, from the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice, on the link between exclusions and offending . That showed that for roughly 5000 young people who received a custodial sentence before the age of 18, the majority had never been permanently excluded, although most had been suspended at some point.

This is broadly consistent with other sources. For instance, FFT Education Datalab, found fewer than 20% of 11000 young people who had been in custody between 16 and 18 had been permanently excluded. I’m not aware of any credible source that gives a higher figure, although because suspensions were for many years called “Fixed Term Exclusions” there are sources (eg. this) that give a figure for “exclusions” that almost certainly includes suspensions and is, therefore, much higher.

What I didn’t mention in that previous post was the the FFT Education Datalab figures also gave a figure just over 80% (hard to be exact as I’m reading from a graph) for the proportion of those who had experienced custody who had at least one suspension (then called fixed term exclusions). These two sources together are the best and most recent data we have and admittedly even then the young people in the data would still have finished Key Stage 4 around the early or mid 2010s. It shows that somewhere between 15% and 25% of young people who have had a custodial sentence have been permanently excluded from school and somewhere between 80% and about 90% have been suspended from school. We have no such data for adult prisoners. With no obvious reason to assume the figures will be a lot higher or a lot lower, the youth figures probably give us a best guess for the adult prisoner population but we have no reason to expect it to be a particularly accurate one. It should also be noted that in discussion of exclusions and suspensions, people often reference “those in custody” (or prison, or YOIs) in the present tense rather than those who have been sentenced to a custodial sentence at some point. If a sample of those currently in custody is sued, this is likely to skew the data towards those with longer sentences, but as the bar chart above showed this will probably not increase (or may even decrease) the exclusion and suspension figures.

If we analyse the MoJ/DfE data we have no real surprises. The relevant data can be extracted from this spreadsheet.

Excluded Suspended Total
Sentenced To Custody 1,327 5585 6,259
All pupils 12,708 238,402 1,632,320

Those given a custodial sentence are much more likely than the average pupil to have been permanently excluded or suspended, which is unsurprising given the obvious overlaps between the worst bad behaviour in school and criminal behaviour. However, while most pupils with a custodial sentence have been suspended, the majority haven’t been permanently excluded. Conversely, while those who are permanently excluded or suspended are more likely to be sentenced to custody, only slightly more than 1 in 10 permanently excluded pupils are sentenced to custody before the age of 18, and fewer than 1 in 40 suspended pupils are sentenced to custody before the age of 18. The route from exclusions and suspensions to custody is in no way a “pipeline” as anti-exclusion campaigners have claimed.

Returning to the COYL report, it contains a contradictory mess of statistics, some of which are credible and some of which are implausible. Several of them are likely to have confused suspensions and permanent exclusions. Here are the statistics used:

Page 5:

We know too the link between exclusion and those young people who end up involved in the criminal justice system. 86% of young men in YOIs have been excluded from school at some point. A study of UK prisoners found that 63% had been temporarily excluded while at school and 42% had been permanently excluded.

Page 14

86% of young men in YOIs have been excluded from school at some point
63% had been temporarily excluded while at school
42% had been permanently excluded….

….The number of boys in Young Offender Institutions who have been excluded from school at some point is shockingly high – 86%, according to the Ministry of Justice…

… 32%. Percentage of women in prison of all ages who were expelled or
permanently excluded (13% for men in prison), compared to 1% of the national population.

Page 16

A study of UK prisoners found that 63% had been temporarily excluded while at school and 42% had been permanently excluded.

Page 22

The IRR report notes that 89% of children in detention in 2017/18 reported having been excluded from school, according to the HM chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales.

Page 48

Almost nine out of ten boys (88%) in custody said that they have been excluded from school…

I have looked for the sources given for these claims, and they are included at the end of this blogpost. Overall, it would appear that the Commission on Young Lives has:

  • used multiple different sources uncritically;
  • made no effort to look for reliable and up to date data;
  • made no effort to investigate contradictory data;
  • repeatedly failed to distinguish between suspensions and exclusions even though this makes a dramatic difference.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the MoJ/DfE report that was the source of the accurate information on this topic got far less media coverage than the agenda driven and incoherent report from the Commission on Young Lives. Too often the media seems more interested in press releases from organisations that can provide representatives to be interviewed, than it is in reporting accurate information.

Additional information about the Commission’s sources:

Page 5:

The 86% figures comes from this document from the MoJ which looks like the work of civil servants. No source is given for it in that document. However, it is dated 2014 which makes it highly likely to include suspensions and, therefore, may well be accurate if understood that way, but misleading to use the word “excluded”. The other two figures are apparently recycled from this report on a similar topic by the once credible IPPR think tank which does include those figures on page 22 (24 in the pdf). The source the IPPR gives is this MoJ report which surveyed a sample of new prisoners in 2005-2006. There would be limits to the accuracy of such data even at the time, but to quote it alongside data from a decade later seems very misleading.

Page 14:

The 86% figure (now making its second and third appearance), is credited to the same source as before, and then just to the Ministry Of Justice and it is still not acknowledged that it is likely to include suspensions. If anything, the “shockingly high” comment implies it might be permanent exclusions. No source is given for the 63% and 42% figure. The most likely explanation is that they are the figures mentioned above for adult prisoners, incorrectly applied to young offenders. No source at all appears to have been given for the 32%, 13% and 1% figures and no explanation is given as to how they can be so inconsistent with the figures for adult prisoners given previously.

Page 16:

As before, these statistics are attributed to the 2017 IPPR report, and no mention is made that they are from much earlier research using a 2005-2006 sample.

Page 22:

This is more recycling of previous reports on a similar topic. In this case, the source is entitled “How Black Working-Class Youth are Criminalised and Excluded in the English School System“. This in turn links to this report from the prison inspectorate. Once again this is survey evidence, and while there is a lot of detail about the sample for adult prisoners, I’ve not been able to identify the sample size for the children in the sample. It does not distinguish between suspensions and permanent exclusions, but it seems likely that it includes suspensions as they were called “fixed term exclusions” at the time.

Page 48:

This is attributed to The Prisoners’ Education Trust’s submission to the commission. No more detail seems to be available, however that particular organisation seems to use this statistic a lot, and in one report they gave a 2013/14 report from the prisons inspectorate as the source which surveyed less than 1000 boys in YOIs. Once again, the figure is extremely likely to include suspensions and it is misleading not to say this.


How misleading was The Economist’s video that discussed school exclusions?

May 4, 2022

The Economist, a publication I had previously associated with a relatively high standard of journalistic integrity and thoroughness, produced a video a few months ago about the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement. From about 9:20 to 13:50, it discusses the issue of school exclusions in the UK. It is available at this youtube address although you will have to login and confirm your age. It can be seen here on Vimeo.

As this is a blog about education, I will be responding to the claims about schools, not the wider issues, so it’s probably worth including a disclaimer right at the start. This is a video that links racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system to school exclusions. I am disputing that link, not the existence of the discrepancies. If anything, I think the statistics the Economist gives underplays those discrepancies in order to make it more plausible that they might be related to far smaller discrepancies in school exclusions. I am not going to attempt to identify another explanation for racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system, not because I have some explanation that I’m ashamed to give, but because the issue is complex and outside my expertise. If you want easy answers to that question, and are suspicious of people who won’t give one, then tough. We’re here to look at what is true, not what is easy.

The Economist’s report was not untypical for the media in the UK, in that it was staggeringly misleading as a discussion of the issue of school exclusions. Many vague claims and misleading statistics were used in what was only a few minutes. This will be a very long post, in which I will be as thorough as possible.

The Economist: In England and Wales just over three percent of the population are black, yet nearly thirteen per cent of people in prison are black.

I would guess the figures used are taken from recently published figures from the Ministry of Justice, regarding ethnicity and the criminal justice system, given the fact that the most recent figures for the black population of England and Wales seem to be around 3.5%, so not necessarily closer to 3% than 4%, whereas the Ministry of Justice appear to use numbers from the 2011 census. If so, the following disclaimer from the  Ministry Of Justice source has been ignored:

No causative links can be drawn from these summary statistics. For the majority of the report, no controls have been applied for other characteristics of ethnic groups (such as average income, geography, offence mix or offender history), so it is not possible to determine what proportion of differences identified in this report are directly attributable to ethnicity. Differences observed may indicate areas worth further investigation but should not be taken as evidence of bias or as direct effects of ethnicity.

I mention this point and the use of out of date population data because, given that the argument goes on to blame schools for crime, The Economist is making no effort to consider the age and gender of the relevant populations. For males between 10-19, over 5% of the population of England and Wales is black. 6% of the school population is black. You’d think this might mean that looking at children would lower the disproportionality in incarceration, but according to the same Ministry Of Justice source:

In 2020, 32% of children in prison were Black despite Black prisoners accounting for only 13% of the entire prison population.

This is hugely disproportionate: 6 times higher than expected. So why does The Economist’s video actually seem to be downplaying the problem? One possible explanation is that the disproportionality here is so great that, whatever its causes, even the most exaggerated reporting about racial disparities in school exclusions could not hope to come close to matching the racial disparities regarding young criminals within the criminal justice system.

The Economist: One way to address this over-representation is to reduce the number of black students who are excluded from schools.

This is the key claim of the video and one that’s hard to justify. According to the latest figures the permanent exclusion rate for black pupils is 0.07%, the same as for white British pupils (if you work out another decimal place, it’s actually lower for black pupils). As we shall see, it’s possible The Economist was referring to suspensions, not permanent exclusions as suspensions were previously called “fixed term exclusions”, however, the suspension rate for black pupils is 3.85%, which is lower than for white British pupils at 4.26%. While this does not make it impossible that fewer exclusions or suspensions for black pupils might affect racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this would be increasing (or creating) a racial disparity in exclusions, not reducing one. It would also involve using racial disparities in the criminal justice system as a reason to treat black pupils specifically as potential criminals, something that, in itself, seems to involve an element of racism.

The Economist:
Tamara Gilkes Burr (US Policy Correspondent of the Economist): People who drop out of school or are pushed out of school are more likely to become incarcerated…

This is sheer sleight of hand. Permanently excluded pupils are not expected to just “drop out of school”. Local authorities are required to find them a new school place after 5 days. Of course, dropping out of education is a risk factor for criminality. But this is not the US. We don’t expect kids to simply vanish from the school system and we certainly don’t expect excluded children to leave education entirely. It is possible they mean suspensions, not permanent exclusions, but these are usually just a day or two. Neither suspended nor permanently excluded children are allowed to just “drop out of school” in the UK.

The Economist:
Tamara Gilkes Burr: …so when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline what we’re saying is that when black students make the same mistakes as white students they’re more likely to end up getting involved in the criminal justice system.

“So” appears to be doing a lot of work here. If being out of school is the problem, then it is very misleading to allow those unfamiliar with the law to assume that exclusions or suspensions are a major reason for children to be out of school.

The Economist: That is an example of structural racism that has an impact today. In 2018, 89% of children in young offender institutions in England and Wales had been excluded from school…

It should not be a surprise that children who are committing serious enough crimes to be imprisoned in an institution for young offenders are far more likely to have been permanently excluded or suspended from school than more law-biding young people. Research by Education Datalab found that over 80% of 16-18 year olds in custody had been given a fixed term exclusion (suspension) previously. The figure for permanent exclusions was under 20%, but still many times more likely than among those not in custody. A recent report by the Ministry of Justice and the DfE found only slightly higher figures.

The 89% statistic could well be correct for suspensions, but is extremely unlikely to be correct for permanent exclusions and it seems highly misleading not to specify which it is. An internet search for this statistic and the 2018 date traces it to a publication by activist group Just For Kids Law who also feature in The Economist’s video. They simply don’t say what type of exclusion they mean. Their source is a report by HM Chief Inspector Of Prisons which says it was from a survey. While a lot of detail is given regarding survey responses from adult prisoners, little is given regarding responses from children, quite possibly because the numbers are so small. The average number of children in custody per month in 2018/2019 is 859, which would make any sample likely to be fairly small. Because it is a survey, this is self-reported exclusions. In the report, it is said those answering “don’t know” weren’t counted, so 89% is unlikely to be the proportion of the sample saying they were excluded. More importantly, this source too, does not specify whether these were permanent exclusions. I would wonder if a child who is in custody even know the difference between being formally excluded by the school and leaving the school due to being in custody.

The Economist: …and in England if you’re a student from an Afro-Caribbean background, you’re four times more likely to be excluded than a white British peer.

So far, all the statistics given are for black pupils. The term “Afro-Caribbean” suddenly appears with no explanation and it would not be surprising if the casual viewer thought it meant black. It is actually a term that refers only to black people of Caribbean origin – now called “black Caribbean” in most official contexts – and it is not a group representative of black pupils in England. While 6% of England’s pupils are black, only 1% are black Caribbean. Most black Caribbean pupils live in London and over three quarters of black Caribbean pupils live in London or the West Midlands. Black Caribbean pupils are one of relatively few ethnic minority groups who have a consistently high rate of permanent exclusions and suspensions. Yet again, The Economist did not specify whether they are talking about permanent exclusions or suspensions. In 2019-20, according to DfE data here, the permanent exclusion rate for black Caribbean pupils is 0.14% (whereas it is 0.07% for white British pupils and also black pupils in general) and the suspension rate is 7.03% (whereas it is 4.26% for white British pupils and 3.85% for black pupils in general). The four times figure is not explained, although back in 2013/14 and 2014/15 the permanent exclusion rate for black Caribbean pupils was four times the national average. So my best explanation is that The Economist (or whoever provided the data to The Economist’s reporters) has:

  1. cherrypicked a black subgroup with a high exclusion rate and switched to talking about this group rather than black pupils in general;
  2. compared that group’s exclusion rate with a national average exclusion rate, even though that is often lower the exclusion rate for white British pupils;
  3. used data from a year where that racial disparity was much greater than it is now.

These three steps together now give the false impression that black pupils are four times more likely to be excluded. As you’ll recall, when looking at the criminal justice system The Economist managed to find a similar disparity in the criminal justice system, by looking at adult prisoners (and using slightly out of date population figures). So now it would seem plausible to the reader that the two issues might be connected. This connection would seem far less plausible if they had correctly reported that the racial disparity for black youth in the criminal justice system is much higher than they have implied and that there is no racial disparity for black pupils in the exclusion statistics.

The Economist: Kiran Gil advised on a government report about exclusion.

Kiran Gil is the CEO of The Difference and I wrote about them here.

The Economist:
Kiran Gil: Even when statisticians control for other factors that are at play for those young people like poverty or geography they still find a statistically significant disproportion for certain ethnic groups.

This is a reference to The Timpson Report on school exclusions. This report did include an analysis of the exclusion statistics that controlled for the other variables that are included in the data schools collect. However, this should not be assumed to be controlling for all relevant factors, or even for accurate measures in all cases. Poverty, in particular, is only identified from eligibility for Free School Meals and disadvantage indicated by a pupil’s postcode, not parental income or wealth. It would be simply incorrect to assume that school data is sufficient to eliminate every possible causal relationship between ethnicity and exclusion rates other than racism. Moreover, the techniques used in the Timpson report’s analysis did, nevertheless, massively reduce the extent to which ethnicity was related to having a higher risk of school exclusions, leaving very few ethnic groups with a higher risk of exclusion. For instance, Irish Traveller/Roma pupils were, on the unadjusted figures, 5 times more likely to be permanently excluded than white British children, but after controlling for other factors, were no more likely to be excluded than white British pupils. After adjustment, no ethnicity was even twice as likely to be permanently excluded as white British pupils. Black Caribbean pupils were, based on the now somewhat out of date figures used in the Timpson Report, 3 times more likely to be excluded before controlling for factors other than ethnicity and only 1.7 times more likely after controlling for those factors. Who knows what effect such an adjustment would have now? It would be utterly unsurprising if controlling for other factors would now completely remove all disparities. And yet, somehow, the fact that in the past controlling for other factors didn’t completely remove the racial disparity is the only mention given to the issue of whether racial disparities in exclusion rates might be explained by factors other than discrimination.

The Economist:
Stefan: People like me or my peers have this feeling like an outsider.

Stefan campaigns with the charity Just For Kids Law to end school exclusions.

There have now been 2 interviewees in this section of the video. Both from groups who campaign against exclusions.

The Economist:

Stefan: Like an outsider? Yeah. We’re feeling like an outcast….feeling like we don’t belong in society.

At the age of 12, he became one of the nearly 450 000 children who get temporarily or permanently excluded from English schools each year.

The latest figures (no doubt reduced by lockdown) are 310 733 suspensions and 5 057 permanent exclusions in 2019/2020. It would be very odd to add suspensions and exclusions together, but even if that is what has been done here I can find no year on record where the number of suspensions and exclusions in England adds up to 450 000 or more. There is only one year since 2006 where it is over 440 000. I am assuming they cherrypicked that year and still felt the need to round up.

However, even that involves ignoring the fact that a child can have more than one suspension, or can have a suspension and a permanent exclusion in the same year. The year with the highest number of children with one or more suspension in the currently published exclusion data is from 2006/2007 and is 227 127. The most recent figure is 154 524 in 2019/20. Even with the 5 057 permanent exclusions added on (despite a high probability that many permanently excluded pupils are also included in the suspension figures) this is nowhere near The Economist’s figure.

The Economist:

Stefan: I was a kid that learned in a different way.

The myth that children have different learning styles has been widely discredited.

The Economist:

Stefan: And to schools, they see it as misbehaved or badly behaved. You got this black boy misbehaving and a lot of teachers that don’t come from the place that you come from will say it’s a sign of aggression and they won’t tolerate it.

It is possible that schools don’t know how to recognise bad behaviour. Alternatively, it is possible that nobody is better at identifying bad behaviour than teachers because we are the experts. I made the case here that permanent exclusions are massively underused given the number of serious incidents that happen in schools. The figures presented there do not suggest exclusions are given for minor incidents that could be misinterpreted. It is certainly not clear that a policy of tolerating apparently aggressive behaviour would benefit anybody.

The Economist: For many excluded students, their disruptive behaviour often stems from difficult home lives.

This is one of those things that may well be true, although it remarkably difficult to prove. A lack of parental discipline can hardly help schools. Yet, this is not a reason to think that the behaviour of such students can be tolerated.

The Economist:

Stefan: I never had a childhood, my childhood was based on gang members, drugs, robbing, et cetera, et cetera. I was really being outcast by so many different places and being an outcast in school, that is a very terrible thing.

Many of the black students who get excluded live in high-crime, inner-city neighbourhoods.

You have to take a reality check here. The Economist does appear to be arguing that a life long involvement in crime is a good reason to allow somebody to stay in a building full of children. I would suggest that this is a reason why it might not be safe for somebody to be in a school.

The Economist:
Stefan: If they’re not in school, who do  you think they’re going to be with? They’re going to be with the drug dealers, the killers the whatever-you-want-to-name, whatever name you want to put to them, they’re going  to be with them type of people.

This is the “fell in with a bad crowd” argument. It has a couple of shortcomings. Firstly, it misses the fact that there are bad crowds in schools (particularly if schools avoid excluding). A 2012 study of London’s street gangs found:

Members were simply friends who enjoyed similar interests, life trajectories, and experiences, not least the same spaces (schools and neighbourhoods). [my emphasis].

Keeping active gang members in schools is keeping the gang in school where they can recruit more members. It’s not stopping kids from being recruited, it’s helping it.

Secondly, there is no logical reason to think that gangs will only recruit between 9 am and 3 pm on weekdays in term time from those pupils who would never fail to attend school unless excluded. The report mentioned earlier from the MoJ and DfE found that persistent absence, including unauthorised absence were quite common among young offenders. It is really unclear why anyone would think suspension or permanent exclusion would be the main reason for potential criminals not to be in school.

The Economist:
Kiran Gil: In the majority of cases, falling  out of education potentially means…

Again, permanent exclusion does not mean “falling out of education”.

The Economist:
Kiran Gil: …a long life of challenge; of interaction with crime; of mental ill-health, and of struggles in interpersonal relationships.

While I suspect many of these outcomes are more likely among those whose behaviour leads to exclusions, there is no evidence to suggest that any of these things are prevented by tolerating the behaviour and allowing the perpetrator to continue to interact with their victims.

The Economist: It’s just too important an issue to say, we can’t do anything about this. One city in Britain has done something about reducing exclusions. This is Saint Roch’s school in Glasgow.

Almost everything so far has been about schools in England or criminal justice in England and Wales. Now we have switched to Scotland which has an entirely different school system and entirely different national policy regarding exclusions.

The Glasgow section is so spectacularly misleading that I have already devoted three blogposts to it:

Feel free to read those posts if you are in any danger of believing the much repeated claim that Glasgow cut youth crime by reducing exclusions. But here I will return to the Economist’s video, continuing from after it finishes with Glasgow.

The Economist: Reducing exclusions can help tackle structural racism within education systems…

Once again we are confronted with a claim where “exclusions” might mean permanent exclusion or it might mean suspensions. Either way, this claim has not been justified. There is no reason to assume that having fewer permanent exclusions will mean smaller disparities between ethnic groups. Most exclusions of black Caribbean pupils are in London (not surprising given most black Caribbean pupils attend London schools), yet London already has low exclusion rates. You can reduce exclusions without reducing disparities.

The Economist: …and it can save governments and taxpayers lots of money. In England, each cohort of permanently excluded pupils costs an extra £2.1bn over their lifetime…

At this point, it should be noticed that permanent exclusions only happen to 5-8 thousand pupils a year. If a “cohort” here is those permanently excluded in a year, this is a claim that each permanent exclusion costs a quarter of a million pounds.

The Economist: education, health, welfare and criminal justice costs. It costs £18,000 to send an excluded child to an alternative-provision school, compared with around £6,000 in mainstream education.

There are no known savings in health, welfare and criminal justice costs that would be made by reducing exclusions. As for education costs, at £12000 extra a year for each excluded pupil, this means The Economist’s figures only add up if a permanently excluded child will, on average, continue to attend school for almost 22 years. A source is given on screen for these statistics, so at some point in the future I will look into claims like this.

After a brief advert for The Difference, the sections ends with the following segue into a section on corporate leadership.

The Economist: Improving the experiences of black children within education systems will have far-reaching benefits. It could help give black people a better chance of getting ahead in the corporate world.

I would suggest that improving the experiences of black children within the English education system should begin with presenting accurate information about what those experiences are.

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